Andrew Williams looks back at a defining era for Italian politics as the curtain falls on Silvio Berlusconi’s premiership
As Silvio Berlusconi slipped out through a side door of the presidential palace in Rome on Saturday night – perhaps departing the political arena for the very last time – the extreme self-confidence which had propelled him to the forefront of Italian politics was noticeably absent.
Having lost his majority in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Italy’s parliament) following a particularly divisive vote on a proposed package of austerity measures, ‘Il Cavaliere’ had no choice but to accept that his 17 years of political dominance were finally over.
First elected in 1994, Berlusconi is the longest-serving Prime Minister in the history of post-war Italy. From the very beginning, he exuded strength, even invincibility. He represented something original; though his newly-formed Forza Italia party seemed to lack a coherent ideology, Berlusconi offered a larger-than-life personality and a determination to get things done.
Armed with a salesman-like charm and a questionable sense of humour, Berlusconi transformed himself into a brand, creating a political empire to rival his business empire and catapulting Italy into an era of ‘Berlusconismo’. But as the years went on, his premiership descended into farce, taking Italy’s reputation down with him.
In recent years, scandal has become as much a part of the political furniture in Italy as corruption in Italian football. His legal troubles have been so extensive that the Wikipedia article ‘Trials and allegations involving Silvio Berlusconi’ is split into eighteen distinct sub-sections. Mafia collusion, tax fraud, false accounting, corruption and bribery of police officers and judges – Berlusconi was accused of all of them. Until recently, he had always managed to bunga bunga his way out prosecution.
And then there are the infamous sex scandals. Prosititues, burlesque dancers and showgirls across Italy queued up, each one eager to share details of the two-time divorcee’s wild parties and numerous liaisons. Few were surprised when, in 2008, Berlusconi appointed 32-year-old former glamour model Mara Carfagna to his Cabinet; ironically, as minister for equal opportunities.
If it weren’t for Berlusconi’s burgeoning media empire (he is the multi-billionaire owner of Mediaset, by far Italy’s largest broadcasting organisation) the cumulative impact of repeated controversies would sure have put paid to his three separate general elections victories. As it is, he wields an unparalleled level of influence over the country’s media, controlling several television channels and a series of news, sport and entertainment websites. However, with Berlusconi’s reputation finally in tatters amongst the vast majority of Italians, not even a suspiciously favourable press could save him.
Berlusconi’s immediate legacy is an unprecedented economic crisis. Government debt stands at 118 percent of GDP; meanwhile, the Italian economy has grown at an abysmal average annual rate of 0.75 percent over the past 15 years. For the time being, responsibility for cleaning up this mess has been placed firmly in the hands of former European Union commissioner ‘Super’ Mario Monti. The task ahead of him and his team of technocrats is monumental; Monti himself has declared that his mission of healing Italy’s financial crisis and creating a growth in economy is almost impossible. Meanwhile, 75-year-old Berlusconi will live out the rest of his days unaffected by the economic catastrophe for which his years of mismanagement were at least partly responsible.
If recent interviews are anything to go by, it seems the prime ministerial playboy will forever remain in denial. “Do you think your lifestyle was a mistake?” asked Italian broadsheet newspaper Corriere della Sera in the wake of his resignation. His response? “Those are all lies, and the international press believed them. They made it look as if we haven’t done anything in the last three and a half years. That is not the case, especially in foreign policy. They ruined my image with false information.”
Though his popularity endured for considerably longer than it might have done in Britain, for example, Italians eventually tired of the lies and broken promises which scarred his time in power. The French newspaper Le Monde has suggested that Berlusconi left Italy in the same state as he found it. Certainly, his reforms have led to few tangible improvements. Many would argue that Italy is now even worse off than when he came to power.